UK Soul Singer Recalls The Roots Of Her Reggae-Infused Album
After becoming the youngest female solo artist to top the UK albums chart in 2004, Joss Stone sued her record label EMI, and formed her own Stone’d label in 2010. She lives in Devon with her four dogs and records pretty much whatever kind of music she wants. Ever since the music industry Bible, Billboard magazine, named Joss Stone’s 2015 disc Water For Your Soul the Reggae Album of the Year, her name has become a flashpoint for controversy. A range of critics—from the Jamaica Observer to dancehall icon Bounty Killer—expressed their concerns at the idea of a white British soul star having the top reggae of the year. Billboard published an article explaining that their decision was based solely on sales, not quality. (Billboard editors also reached out to Boomshots to compile a list of the year’s 10 Best Reggae Albums, which we happily provided.) All the controversy obscures two important facts: Full interview After The Jump…
First of all, roughly half the album’s 14 tracks can accurately be described as reggae. Water For Your Soul topped Billboard‘s Reggae Albums chart for 8 weeks this year, but also charted on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The second point is that, although her patois sounds weak, some of her reggae tracks are pretty good—particularly “Harry’s Symphony”—which may or may not have been named after the British prince who is reportedly a major reggae fan, and which samples Linton Kwesi Johnson interpolates lines from classic cuts by Cocoa Tea, Inner Circle, and Trison Palma. She’s also laid down a couple tracks with Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, who encouraged her to make more reggae records. Because, let’s face it: Now that the music of Jamaica has been traveling all the way around the world for decades, British dub poets like LKJ are going to make albums like Bass Culture and 5-year-old white girls (like Joss Stone once was) are going to raid their daddy’s record collections, and some of those girls are going to grow up to make reggae songs that sample LKJ chanting about how “Bass History is a moving is a hurting Black story.” And that’s actually a wonderful thing—as long as reggae continues to thrive and evolve in its birthplace. Boomshots spoke with Joss Stone by telephone from Mexico City before all the drama kicked off—still her remarks help put the debate into proper context, as well as revealing her long-standing love of reggaea, and her plans to visit the island one day and collaborate with an artist there.
BOOMSHOTS: The new album is a different sound for you—a new musical palette.
Yeah, it is a little bit different I guess. We kinda just wanted to—I don’t know—experience some different noises. Like, we’ve been traveling a lot and I’ve been collaborating with people in each place I’ve been going. That’s kind of inspiring me to enjoy different sounds around the world. I mean, we have sounds on the album that come from countries I’ve never been to.
Like, which countries?
OK, so on the record there’s reggae, there’s hip hop, and there’s R&B. That kind of like runs throughout. No matter what’s going on it’s gonna come around.
So that’s like the basis. But then we have the Indian flute, and I’ve never been to India. And then there’s the sarod, which is an Arabic instrument, and the guy who plays that is from Bengal. And then Nitin Sawhney, he’s an Indian producer in the UK, he turned me on to a lot of different sounds like the tabla and stuff like this. And he actually plays a flamenco guitar, which is more, like, Spanish. And then there’s like a Brazilian beat on “The Answer” with Irish fiddle, gospel choir, you know [laughs] so It’s like, it’s a big mix. And I like that.
I like the fact that I can have a big mix.
I think it’s exciting. It makes my life more interesting—that’s for sure.
It sounds like England in a way. Yours is a very multicultural country, isn’t it?
Yeah, totally. Absolutely. You come to London and it’s full of all sorts of different people from around the world, doing different things. I love that.
Yeah, you don’t have to travel anywhere. If you’re in London it’s all right there.
The opening track, “Love Me,” is very much a reggae vibe. Was that a Dennis Bovell production?
No, this is my production! Jonathan Shorten and I made the songs together. And that particular song actually, I wrote with Damian Marley years and years ago. And then I brought it home and said “Come on Johnny let’s cut it.” So we just cut it and that’s what you heard. And then the years passed by and we decided to cut some more stuff. And really Dennis, he came in, like I would say, last year. And we’ve been making the record for about 5, 6 years. [Laughs] So it’s been going on for a while.
Dennis brought “The Answer” to the table and “Sensimilla.” And he’s made some dub versions of some songs, and he’s been teaching me a lot about reggae. Cause I don’t know. I don’t know anything about anything really. I just kinda sing.
You sing it like you’ve been feeling it for a while.
He’s like The Teacher. He’s the wise one.
So Blackbeard is your teacher?
Yeah, he’s a clever guy.
He basically created that whole UK lovers rock sound, right?
Yeah, he did. He’s a lovely guy. He’s been in the UK for years now. He’s from Barbados.
So where did you encounter reggae? I know it’s all over London, but what was your own introduction to reggae?
Um… Do you know, I think the first time that I heard it—it’s funny how you remember these things—I mean, it’s so far back.
I remember there were two records that I kind of stole from my dad’s record collection when I was probably five or something. It was James Brown and Linton Kwesi Johnson. And I guess they are very different sounding, but I liked ’em. They were soulful. There was something I liked about them. So I played them and I played them and I played them. So Linton’s was probably the first reggae voice that I ever heard.
And then you know from there… I also played The Specials a lot, which is obviously ska, but it’s a similar kind of feeling that you get.
The Specials are amazing.
They’re such fun, aren’t they?
They are indeed. But getting back to LKJ, didn’t Dennis Bovell produce a lot of his music?
Yes he did. Apparently they’re really good mates. I still never met Linton, but I guess he and Dennis have been friends for 20, 30 years. They toured and did loads of records.
So I said “Dennis, please can you just ask Linton if we can have some of his vocals on our track?” So he made the connection and he played him the song. And it worried me a little bit, because he’s somebody who’s obviously deep-rooted in reggae whereas I’m clearly not… You don’t know whether you’re going to offend someone or not. It’s easy to do that. I never would do that deliberately, but it happens.
So I was nervous about him playing the music to Linton. Cause I thought “Shit, what if he doesn’t like it?” What’s if he’s like… [Laughs] six years down the tubes. But luckily he was like, “Yeah, great.” I was lucky. I’m a lucky girl.
You say you wrote the song “Love Me” with Damian Marley a long time ago. Weren’t you both in the same group at one time?
Yeah that’s when we wrote it actually. So we did this band thing, which was really nice to do. It was including a lot of different styles of music. The whole thing was put together by Dave Stewart. He kind of called everybody up and said “Come on, let’s go make some music together.” I didn’t know Damian until those sessions.
Basically we would work in the day, and then the sessions used to stop at like 9 o’clock. And so Damian had a studio to work on his Distant Relatives record with Nas—and it was just down the hallway. So we’d go down there and have a little jam. I really was just listening and hanging out and singing on a couple bits and bobs.
Then Damian started talking about “Yo, you should do a reggae record.” Cause we did a song called “Miracle Worker” together which I think we really liked. We liked the sound of our voices together.
So he said “You should do a reggae record. And I said, “Well I’ve actually got a couple songs.” I think I had “Underworld” and “Wake Up” and “Clean Water” at that point. And I played it for him and he said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then he popped in the room, does his vocal on “Wake Up,” and I was like “What’s going on?” And then Dave said, like, “Oh yeah, he’s gonna put a vocal on this now.” I said, “Oh, cool. That’s nice.” And then we just wrote some songs and, you know… so be it. And then those songs sat there for a long time. [Laughs]
Didn’t you shoot a video for “Miracle Worker”?
Yes, actually it was the only song that we made a video for for that whole project. The band thing, it was called SuperHeavy, that project only lasted for a very short amount of time. But it was so much fun, because it was all these different styles of music. It’s a shame that we only really did one single. But the single that did come out was lovely. It was my favorite one, and we made a lovely video for it. So I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed that time.
Are all the songs on your album new recordings?
You mean like musically are they new, or…?
They weren’t left over from SuperHeavy?
Oh, no no no no. They weren’t part of that record. I mean, you know what my role in SuperHeavy was? I think it was mainly just to wrap everything up a bit. I feel like I would kind of sew everything together. So it wasn’t like I was up front, you know? It was a relaxed vibe for me. I kinda just popped in and out and did some backing vocals behind A.R. [Rahman]’s vocals. He’s an Indian producer and he’s got a lovely singing voice. But you know, he’s singing Indian, which is a really cool thing to add. And I would just kind of pop the little backing vocals on there, so then it would fit with the rest of the stuff, and they would kind of loop it in. I liked that part of my job for that.
On your song “Wake Up” Damian calls you “the modern-day Janis Joplin.”[Laughs] I know! He’s so funny. You know what’s so funny about him? He goes like this: “Hey man, what’s that lady that sings all loud and all this?” Cause he couldn’t remember her name. He was like, “What’s that lady? What’s that lady Joss sounds like?” And somebody said “Oh—Janis Joplin?” He goes “Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s it!” And then he wrote that line. I thought it was funny. He cracks me up. I don’t even know if he listens to Janis Joplin, but… [Laughs]
He’s full of surprises.
Yes he is, that’s for sure.
So are you going to accept that title?
No. [Laughs] I wish.
You seem like a pretty happy person but Janis seemed like more of a tortured soul.
I don’t know. She seemed like she laughed a lot. Maybe if she’d have lived a bit longer, then she’d have got a bit more moody. She laughed a lot, man. Her laugh was a pretty famous laugh.
True, true, true. So what’s behind the title of this album? It’s very poetic.
Well, there’s a song called “Water For Your Soul” that I actually didn’t include on the record cause I thought it didn’t fit with the rest of the songs. But this particular song, it’s pretty much about letting go and traveling and just finding whatever it is that you like for yourself, and then watering yourself. So if you think about a seed, it won’t grow without water. So you’ve got to figure out, What is your water? What is your love? What is your want? And mine is music. But everyone’s is different. So I guess for the music lovers out there, I hope that my album could be water for their souls. I hope. You’ve gotta feed yourself. You’ve gotta help yourself grow up right. So give yourself whatever you need.
There’s some pretty tough relationship songs up near the start of the album. “This Ain’t Love” and and “Stuck On You.” What inspired those?
It’s crazy isn’t it? I’m kind of a bit of a pendulum. I got from one to the other. So my poor boyfriend has to deal with that. [Laughs] Up and down. I’ll be like, “I fucking hate you!” [Pause] “Actually, no I don’t. I love you.”
Now is that your ex-boyfriend who has to deal with it?
No! Those songs are about my current boyfriend. Isn’t that crazy? [Laughs.] The poor guy. We had a very rocky start, but it’s good that he’s still here, and he loves the songs—don’t you babe?
What was his reaction the first time he heard those songs?
He loves it. The funny thing is, is the song “Cut the Line,” in the second verse, I’m saying something about “I write you these lyrics, and it’s quite obvious that I’m talking to you.” You know what? It’s so obvious in the lyrics, but it’s even more obvious when I say “Hey, this song is about you!” That makes it really fucking obvious. And still—he will still listen to it and go “Aw, I love the bass and drums on that one baby. That one’s really nice.” And I’ll say “Well, what’s it about?” And he says “I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”
I know! Can you believe?
I don’t actually believe him.[Laughing] The bass and drums!
The last song on the album is called “The Answer.” What is the question?
OK, I guess this was kind of inspired by the same people who inspired “Star,” in a way. You know, we spend a lot of time around my kitchen table arguing and moaning. I mean, it’s kind of this English thing. You know how we have stereotypes in this world. And our stereotype for Americans is that everyone in America is like, “Ohhh… Have a nice day! Isn’t it totally awesome?” And notice that this is the stereotype. So we [English] are kind of like the opposite. So we’re kinda, “This is fuckin’ shit!” And “That’s shit!” And “This thing’s shit!” So I guess I’m surrounded by all this, like, moaning, moaning moaning moaning. So I was like, “You know what? Everybody calm down. Let it go, all your questions about ‘What am I gonna do about this? and ‘How are we gonna do that?’ How about we just let go? Have a jam and you’ll come to the answer. The answer will come to you. As long as you’re still breathing in and out, you’ll be alright. As long as everybody around you is OK, everyone you love, then you’ll be alright.” So there’s lots of different answers to lots of different questions, I guess is what I’m saying. It’s just about doing well on the question.
I like that approach. Maybe it’s the American in me.
Yes. [Laughs] I’ve been told I have American tendencies. So I guess that’s my way. I try to be positive and say “That’s totally awesome!”
Well, it’s also a Jamaican attitude. You often hear people in Jamaica say, “While there is life there is hope.” Or when you ask how someone is doing they might say, simply, “Deh Ya.” Have you visited Jamaica? And if so what’s your favorite place to go?
Aw man, I have visited Jamaica for about a day. Not even. Well, I drove in at night, I did my gig, and then I drove out in the early, early hours of the morning. So I literally saw the sun coming up. I could just kind of see what Jamaica was like along the road to the airport. So really I haven’t had a chance.
But luckily on this tour that I’m trying to do, we go to every country in the world. And in each place we visit a charity or somebody that’s doing something good, and we make a collaboration with an artist from the country. So that is allowing me to see the world a little bit more. So hopefully, on this tour, I will visit Jamaica and I will spend three days there, which will be really lovely.